Jeremy Deller is something of an unsung Caught By The River icon. Although I’d bought clothes off him when he used to work at Sign Of The Times in Kensington Market, my first encounter with him as an artist was the Acid Brass project back in the ’90s. Here, he puckishly conducted a brass band from Stockport as they belted out the rave hits of the day. I was lucky enough to see the properly beserk KLF gig at the Barbican in 1997 (which Deller helped pull together) featuring a 23 minute long brass band version of ‘What Time Is Love’ and Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty stalking the stage in electric wheelchairs in front of choirs of Liverpool dockers. It was ace – utter chaos, utterly exhilarating.
A few years later, I oversaw a ‘conversation’ between Deller and Manic Street Preachers‘ Nicky Wire for a magazine I occasionally produce (Socialism). His relationship with the Manics went back some years – he’d curated an exhibition in Cardiff (Unconvention) of artworks that had inspired the band, that they’d mentioned in interviews and on sleeve quotes. Incredibly, it was the first time a Picasso, a Warhol or a Bacon had ever been displayed in Wales. Deller had recently won the Turner Prize (in December 2004, one of the rare years where the winner doesn’t get vilified in the press) yet success hadn’t affected him a jot – he was charming, self-effacing, curious and mischievous. When asked what he was going to do with the prize money, he stated that he had already invested it in Premium Bonds. The twinkle in his eye at that point was Folk Archive, a curated exhibition of modern day folk art which took in everything from Jack Of The Green costumes to prison tattoos.
Really, that summed up the beauty of Deller’s work – for me at least. It is much less about tangible art (the kind that sits on a gallery wall for you to stand in front of and silently pontificate over) and much more about the gut instincts you take away with you, the ones that play in your mind, however uneasy they might be. The reconstruction of The Battle Of Orgreave, the Turner Prize winning Memory Bucket, the folk art collection and It Is What It Is, his tour across America with a car-bombed RV – they live with you long after you’ve walked away from them and gone to meet your mates in the pub. Seeing photos at the Folk Archive exhibition in the Barbican of impossibly stacked together Notting Hill Carnival soundsystems elevated to the same status as major artworks was an empowering experience. After all, why shouldn’t these things be celebrated as artworks?
Deller’s latest project, Procession, takes place on July 5th in Deansgate, Manchester as part of that city’s major arts festival. Taking the folk art idea to new extremes, the piece is a moving parade through the town centre. Deller described it thus: “A good procession is in itself a public artwork: part self-portrait and part alternative reality.” The fact that the procession is due to feature Blackout Crew and a musical tribute to the world’s first fish and chip shop in Oldham is something that has to be loudly applauded. We’ll be following all the way.